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Workplace Fairness

What triggers perceptions of workplace fairness and unfairness? And how do fairness perceptions impact your organization? Here's what the research says...

Fairness perceptions have several layers.

Fairness isn’t just one thing. When people decide, consciously or subconsciously, whether a workplace is fair, we’re responding to several things.

Perceived workplace fairness can increase or decrease in response to: how decisions happen, how leaders distribute resources, how well team members explain decisions and processes, and the tone of interactions involving decisions and appeals.

Researchers distinguish several layers of organizational justice14,19:

Type of JusticeWhat is it?The questions people answer for themselves:
Procedural JusticePerceptions that the way decisions and outcomes happen is fair and transparent.Are people using a process that is… - Consistent across time and people? - Unbiased and unaffected by personal interests? - Accurate and based on valid information? - Correctable and modifiable? - Representative of core values? - Ethical?
Distributive JusticePerceptions that the actual distribution of rewards and resources is fair.Do outcomes match inputs? • Equity: outcomes match inputs • Inequity (over): outcomes are greater than inputs (i.e. overpaid) Inequity (under): outcomes are fewer than inputs (i.e. underpaid)
Interactional JusticePerceptions that interactions about procedures and outcome distribution are fair. Two sublayers (below).(See Interpersonal & Informational Justice below)
- Interpersonal JusticePerceptions that conversations preserve dignity and respect for all people affected by the procedures and outcomes.Are conversations about procedures and outcomes respectful? Are questions and appeals handled with dignity?
- Informational JusticePerceptions that clear and thorough explanations are readily available for all people affected by the procedures and outcomes.Is clear and adequate information about decision processes and outcomes easy to obtain?

Research summary animation from the China Europe International Business School:

Effort-to-reward ratios are an important workplace fairness comparison.

Adams’ Equity Theory explains that people seek to equalize our effort-to-reward ratios with those of other people we see as comparable to ourselves. When we notice different input/output ratios in our workplaces, we sense a lack of distributive justice. People are not alone in making these comparisons:

Positive perceptions of distributive justice link to greater job satisfaction, deeper organizational commitment and trust, and more frequent helping behaviors. Positive beliefs about distributive justice are also linked with lower turnover, fewer off-task workplace behaviors, and reduced absenteeism/tardiness1,2,6,7,14.

Context influences how people define fairness—the workplace setting carries special considerations.

In formal organizational settings, people tend to prefer equitable distributions of rewards (i.e., rewards proportionate to each person’s contribution). Whereas in close personal relationships, people tend to prefer equal or need-based distributions (i.e., rewards distributed equally, or rewards proportionate to each person’s needs)12,15,18,.

Interesting flip: Resource distribution can influence perceptions of relationship closeness.

Who's the point of comparison? The comparison target anchors workplace fairness judgments.

Perceptions of justice or injustice are social comparisons. Changing the base of comparison changes our fairness perceptions. We’re more likely to feel dissatisfied with an outcome when a comparable person receives more than we do. Interestingly, we rarely focus on making comparisons with those who receive less than we do.

Exploring a range of comparison targets can broaden thinking about fairness14.

Decision processes influence workplace fairness perceptions—even more than the decision outcomes.

Even when we dislike an outcome, believing that a decision was made through fair process makes us significantly more likely to accept it. Perceptions of procedural justice are based on things like: bias, accuracy, process consistency, the ability to express one’s opinion and/or appeal the decision, and how well the process represents the ethics and values of the people involved.

Build fair decision processes in your organization. The fair process effect is particularly important for people whose outcomes are negative (i.e., people who benefit from a decision are less inclined to consider how fair the decision-making process was)3,6,11,19,24.

Decision explanations have a big impact on workplace fairness perceptions.

This is the type of justice that managers can directly control. Decision explanations fall under what researchers call interactional justice. Interactional justice has an interpersonal side—treating people with respect, and demonstrating care for their well-being, as well as an informational side—clearly explaining the procedure and thought behind a decision outcome.

Taking the care and time to provide respectful explanations promotes trust in the fairness of workplace decisions6,13.

There are gender differences in the evaluation of fairness and reactions to fairness.

An fMRI study found that men and women have different neurophysiological responses to procedural and distributive justice evaluations. The brain areas involved in appraising self-relevant information showed greater activation for women than for men.

The takeaway? In general, women react more strongly to (un)fairness, which makes interactional justice especially important9.

People bring biased thinking to workplace fairness perceptions.

We tend to think of ourselves as fair. We also tend to think that personally beneficial outcomes are the most fair. When we receive greater rewards than a comparable person, we are prone to find a reason why we’re more qualified rather than conclude our outcome is unfair.

In other words, it's natural for people to be biased in fairness assessments. Managers and leaders can try to mitigate bias by helping team members re-calibrate perceptions 1,2,20.

In ambiguous situations, people fill in the blanks to judge fairness.

Our judgments that something is fair or unfair can be based on intuition or emotion. Especially when there is high ambiguity. In unclear situations with scarce information, people are more likely to rely on subjective, heuristically-based fairness judgments.

The fix? Offer information about how and why decisions have been made. Information can reduce reflexes to fill in gaps based on affective responses and individual sense-making16,25,26.

A sense of workplace unfairness can cripple work attitudes and performance.

Promoting workplace fairness is important. When people feel that decisions, processes, and interactions in their organization are unjust, negative attitudes develop about the organization and its leaders. These negative attitudes in turn demotivate and reduce performance outcomes. People may even retaliate against perceived unfairness by leaving—or even deliberately sabotaging—the organization.

In contrast, fair workplaces can compel reciprocity, creating an environment where people are willing to go above and beyond for their coworkers and organization 5,7,8,10,21,22.

Team responses to unfairness are especially strong when individuals are singled out for unfair treatment.

When a supervisor creates a climate of injustice within a team, the team members experience a level of shared discomfort, but also tend to band together and be more cohesive. However, if a supervisor treats one teammate more unfairly than others, teams retaliate by performing fewer helping behaviors for the supervisor4,23.

Some workplace fairness behaviors are more energizing than others.

Managers reported feeling depleted when engaging in procedural justice behaviors daily. However, engaging in interactional fairness behaviors was replenishing – especially for extraverted managers17.

References

  1. Adams, J. S. (1963). Towards an understanding of inequity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(5), 422–436. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040968
  2. Adams, J. S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 267–299). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60108-2
  3. Brockner, J., & Wiesenfeld, B. M. (1996). An integrative framework for explaining reactions to decisions: Interactive effects of outcomes and procedures. Psychological Bulletin, 120(2), 189–208. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.120.2.189
  4. Christian, J., Christian, M. S., Garza, A. S., & Ellis, A. P. J. (2012). Examining retaliatory responses to justice violations and recovery attempts in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1218–1232. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029450
  5. Cohen-Charash, Y., & Spector, P. E. (2001). The role of justice in organizations: A meta-analysis. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86(2), 278–321. https://doi.org/10.1006/obhd.2001.2958
  6. Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O. L. H., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 425–445. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.86.3.425
  7. Colquitt, J. A., Scott, B. A., Rodell, J. B., Long, D. M., Zapata, C. P., Conlon, D. E., & Wesson, M. J. (2013). Justice at the millennium, a decade later: A meta-analytic test of social exchange and affect-based perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(2), 199–236. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031757
  8. Daileyl, R. C., & Delaney, K. J. (1992). Distributive and Procedural Justice as Antecedents of Job Dissatisfaction and Intent to Turnover. Human Relations, 45, 305–317. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1053-4822(02)00070-0
  9. Dulebohn, J. H., Davison, R. B., Lee, S. A., Conlon, D. E., McNamara, G., & Sarinopoulos, I. C. (2016). Gender differences in justice evaluations: Evidence from fMRI. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(2), 151–170. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000048
  10. Erdogan, B. (2002). Antecedents and consequences of justice perceptions in performance appraisals. Human Resource Management Review, 12(4), 555–578. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1053-4822(02)00070-0
  11. Folger, R. (1977). Distributive and procedural justice: Combined impact of voice and improvement on experienced inequity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(2), 108–119. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.35.2.108
  12. Greenberg, J. (1983). Equity and equality as clues to the relationship between exchange participants. European Journal of Social Psychology, 13(2), 195–196. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.2420130209
  13. Greenberg, J. (1993). The social side of fairness: Interpersonal and informational classes of organizational justice. In Justice in the workplace: Approaching fairness in human resource management (pp. 79–103). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1993-97521-004
  14. Greenberg, J. (2011). Organizational justice: The dynamics of fairness in the workplace. In S. Zedeck (Ed.), APA handbook of industrial and organizational psychology, Vol 3: Maintaining, expanding, and contracting the organization. (pp. 271–327). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/12171-008
  15. Greenberg, J., & Cohen, R. L. (1982). chapter 12 - Why justice? Normative and instrumental interpretations. In JERALD Greenberg & R. L. Cohen (Eds.), Equity and Justice in Social Behavior (pp. 437–469). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-299580-4.50018-5
  16. Haidt, J. (2001). The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment. Psychological Review, 108(4), 814–834. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.108.4.814
  17. Johnson, R. E., Lanaj, K., & Barnes, C. M. (2014). The good and bad of being fair: Effects of procedural and interpersonal justice behaviors on regulatory resources. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(4), 635–650. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035647
  18. Leventhal, G. S. (1976a). The distribution of rewards and resources in groups and organizations. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 9, pp. 91–131). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60059-3
  19. Leventhal, G. S. (1976b, September). What should be done with equity theory? New approaches to the study of fairness in social relationships [Speech/Meeting]. National Science Foundation, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED142463
  20. Liebrand, W. B. G., Messick, D. M., & Wolters, F. J. M. (1986). Why we are fairer than others: A cross-cultural replication and extension. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22(6), 590–604. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(86)90052-1
  21. Moorman, R. H. (1991). Relationship between organizational justice and organizational citizenship behaviors: Do fairness perceptions influence employee citizenship? Journal of Applied Psychology, 76(6), 845–855. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.76.6.845
  22. Skarlicki, D. P., & Folger, R. (1997). Retaliation in the workplace: The roles of distributive, procedural, and interactional justice. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(3), 434–443. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.82.3.434
  23. Stoverink, A. C., Umphress, E. E., Gardner, R. G., & Miner, K. N. (2014). Misery loves company: Team dissonance and the influence of supervisor-focused interpersonal justice climate on team cohesiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(6), 1059–1073. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037915
  24. Tyler, T. R., & Caine, A. (1981). The influence of outcomes and procedures on satisfaction with formal leaders. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41(4), 642–655. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.41.4.642
  25. van den Bos, K. (2003). On the Subjective Quality of Social Justice: The Role of Affect as Information in the Psychology of Justice Judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 482–498. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.85.3.482
  26. van den Bos, K., & Lind, E. A. (2002). Uncertainty management by means of fairness judgments. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 34, pp. 1–60). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(02)80003-X